Conjunctions, Pronouns, and Ideological Absolutes

A version of this posting appeared in a column in the Daily News of Newburyport


Ultimately, … we must hold every school and district responsible for whether it has provided an education for all children that can be documented to increase choices of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That is an American education.                        

Carl Glickman, author and Professor Emeritus University of Georgia


With Pride Month, the ongoing debates connected with policy and identity always get more pronounced.  It’s a month when I  find myself reflecting on my time teaching an Educational Structure and Change graduate course at the University of New Hampshire; and before that, as a middle and high school English teacher.  Dichotomizing Education: Why No One Wins and America Loses by Carl Glickman was one of the seminal readings in the course. It reminds of the power of conjunctions in our language, and how those small insertions in our writing or speaking hold an almost subliminal power.  A power of exclusion or inclusion; division or understanding…a power that seemingly “allows only one group to hold the truth and demonizes others.”

The main premise of Glickman’s piece was addressing the either/or rather than the both/and disposition for making decisions or policy. A curriculum example at the time was a debate between a core knowledge emphasis versus inclusion of multicultural knowledge. In my particular field, one of the literacy curriculum issues was teaching phonics versus whole language for reading instruction. Today those issues, amongst others, have continued to morph: whether it be the attacks on schools through efforts to ban books  expanding on diversity; whitewashing curriculum; or the latest effort identifying the Science of Reading Program as the best literacy program for teaching reading and comprehension over other well researched practices.  The literacy debate is a prime example of multiple programs offering elements that can benefit students; and teachers should be able to draw from all of them for their instructional toolbox.

Conversations would change if we discussed the possibilies of both/and before the conversation stoppers of either/or.  A narrow use of conjunctions can limit constructive discussions and promotes ideological absolutes if the only result of a decision is a winner and a loser.  Political ideology has captured another part of speech…pronouns.  The clear proof is in legislation being passed in states that live under the make America great mantra.  Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah have all passed ‘pronoun laws’ that in some form restrict administrators, teachers and students from using pronouns that don’t align with the sex assigned at birth.  Such legislation further marginalizes members of the LGBTQ+ community and eradicates opportunities for understanding.  Ideologically motivated legislation further damages our democracy at large as the rhetoric of state legislation also places federal solutions both in Congress and the Supreme Court in the either/or category.

Thinking back to my time in the English classroom, I remember that teaching certain parts of speech-verbs in particular- could be fun, somewhat playful.  Pronouns and conjunctions on the other hand could be somewhat dull…uneventful.  They were placeholders or idea extensions at their best; misplaced pronouns or run on sentences at their worst.  I’m not sure how teaching or word crafting using pronouns fully plays out in today’s classrooms. I’m quite sure though that in states like Florida and Tennessee there are limitations in classrooms; tamping down student discussions that hinder them from reaching their writing potential and even worse, their thinking.

I don’t want to present an illusion that I have the answers going forward for the most constructive way to introduce the use of pronouns into a classroom discussion about writing and identity.  What I do know though is that some of the classroom discussions  creating the most angst are often the ones that lead to greater depths of understanding.  Today, pronouns seem to have the same grip as sex education has traditionally had for creating concern for some…mostly adults with a particular ideology. For me though, pronouns fall into a both/and teachable moment.  An opportunity to both consider new elements to one’s writing, and better understand who we are collectively and individually.

Pride Month both celebrates and displays a diversity in our communities. As the month coincides with the close of another school year, it also models a critical component from Theodore and Nancy Sizer’s timeless book, The Students Are Watching; Schools and the Moral Contract. The Sizers note that students are watching how adults model their actions and words. I’m grateful to live in a state and community modeling its celebration of diversity rather than conceding to our ideologies.  On balance though, we have work to do to achieve diversity, equity and inclusion locally and beyond.  To paraphrase Glickman, our democracy must stand on a foundation that is wider than the belief of any one individual or group.  If we hold any one ideological absolute that should be it.

Gary Tirone lives in Newburyport and is a former public school teacher and administrator who also served as a Teacher in Residence at the University of New Hampshire.